Ethan Slabaugh, 17, left, wears a protective Guardian Cap over his helmet during St. Clair Shores Lake Shore practice. More players are wearing the headgear in practice than in games (Heather Rousseau / Special to News)
St. Clair Shores — The first game of the football season proved to be a game-changer for Will Bobek.
Not because the junior St. Clair Shores Lake Shore quarterback had a breakout game or a memorable play.
It was because he suffered a concussion on the first play.
“There was a false start,” Bobek said. “And one of their players came through and put the top of his (helmet) into my chin. He kind of came up on me where the chin strap is. I didn’t see him coming.
“I played the first quarter and took another hit and my head hit the turf. That’s when I came out. The (doctors) said it wasn’t serious. I had headaches for the next two or three days. They said if I didn’t have the first hit I would have been fine with the second.”
So, why was the concussion a game-changer for Bobek, who would miss the next two games?
Because he then began wearing a protective helmet gear called Guardian Caps, which many say helps reduce the chance of a player suffering a serious head injury.
“Now that I’m wearing the cap I feel safer,” said Bobek, who has worn the cap the past three games and plans to wear it Friday when Lake Shore plays at St. Clair. “I knew it looked a little dorky. I took a little stuff from my teammates but I’d rather wear it and be safe.”
Lake Shore is one of three Michigan high schools — the others being DeWitt and Hudsonville Unity Christian — to use the Guardian Caps. The spongy cover costs $50 and fits any helmet, football or lacrosse, and is permitted for high school play by the National Federation of State High Schools.
Although the company that produces the caps, Guardian (based in Alpharetta, Ga.) stands by its product, it does post a warning, a disclaimer of sorts, on its website:
“No helmet, practice apparatus, or helmet pad can prevent or eliminate the risk of concussions or other serious head injuries while playing sports. Researchers have not reached an agreement on how the results of impact absorption tests relate to concussions. No conclusions about a reduction of risk or severity of concussive injury should be drawn from impact absorption tests.”
In 2011, there were 600 caps in use, according to Guardian’s website. Last year there were 8,000.
Lake Shore coach Tom Iwanicki said he’s all for any added protection. But initially he had some concerns, among them that the device will provide a false sense of security.
He warns players must be taught the proper way to block and tackle, with their shoulders and arms, and not lead with their helmet.
“It’s another layer of protection,” Iwanicki said. “It won’t help much if you get a good head-to-head hit or you get hit on the chin like Bobek.
“It’s a step in the right direction.”
Iwanicki was introduced to the product during a clinic in Nashville, Tenn., a little over two years ago. He did his research, asked the school’s booster club for the money and purchased 20 in December — and hopes to purchase 20 more during the offseason. Fifteen are used by the junior varsity level.
While most are used primarily during practice, Bobek is the only varsity player to use it during a game. Senior linebacker-guard Alec Maluchnik uses one during practice and advocates the product.
“If I had a bad concussion I’d wear it (during a game),” he said. “I wear it all the time in practice. It does help. I know 100 percent of the time it helps. It kind of brushes the blow off.”